Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Adventures of Philip Marlowe on the Air

Some of you think I was way too harsh on the CBS old time radio series The Adventures of Philip Marlowe when I wrote a week or so ago about the Richard Diamond series. You're right. But I was harsh on the character, not the show. 

Gerald Mohr
Marlowe as a fictional character is terrific. I've always seen him as an isolationist who doesn't care for or need other people around him. This is a thematic element that works perfectly in the novels, because Chandler wrote him as a knight in a world of corruption. You'd want to be alone too if you had to wade in and out of that garbage! But that theme did not translate to the radio series. The writers didn't get it, so as a character Marlowe falls a little short. (Marlowe had the same problems in the films--the poor guy has never been fully understood!)

However, I think that The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, from a technical and writing stand point, set a standard of quality that very few OTR private detective shows could reach.

The sound effects, music, actor voices, even the announcer, blended together in such a way that we were given a true "noir" radio show. I think the music is some of the best with that low saxophone-based theme. Gerald Mohr, with his voice of gravel, who played Marlowe, added another element with his weekly introduction:

Get this and get it straight, crime is a suckers road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison or the grave. There's no other end; but they never learn.

Simply typing those words doesn't give the intro justice. You must hear Mohr's delivery, followed by the musical blast that follows.

Gerald Mohr is, I think, the definitive radio voice of Marlowe. He sounds absolutely wonderful. (Mohr also played Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe show beside Sidney Greenstreet for a few episodes.) He missed a day of work now and then, so in a few episodes you'll hear other guys, including William Conrad, but none of them had Mohr's spark. 

It's easy to be so overwhelmed by the production quality of the Marlowe show that you can make the case that saying it's inferior to another show isn't a valid criticism; that's not what I was saying last time when I crowned Richard Diamond the best of the OTR private detectives. From the production quality side, Marlowe beats 'em all; from a character stand point, I still give the tip to Richard Diamond. Diamond is the more satisfying show to listen to. Marlowe is just another thriller. A very well-produced thriller. I'm listening to an episode right now!

Don't worry, Phil, I'll only travel that "sucker's road" in my books!

Of course typing this makes me think of the BBC audio adaptations of the Marlowe novels. Have you heard those? I'll talk about them soon....


  1. What made Richard Diamond and Sam Spade so great on radio was their sense of humor. Mohr's Marlowe had none. And the stories were always more maudlin than hardboiled. Too bad.

  2. There were two or three Marlowe episodes that were indeed maudlin. I can think of one specifically, the title of which escapes me, that was a rewritten Dr. Kildare story (or maybe it was the other way around, but I heard the Kildare version first) where Marlowe meets a woman, they have a romance, and she dies of some sudden illness. It was a horrible episode.

    The worst you can say about the Marlowe show is that they stuck to a rigid formula. Not that other shows didn't, but Marlowe's was much more predictable to the point where one episode is the same as the other, give or take a detail or so.

    But the production values were great!

  3. Having listend to every episode of Richard Diamond, Sam Spade, Barry Craig, amoung others, I would have to give the award to Mohr's Phillip Malrowe anyday. Like you said the quality is beyond compare, but it is actually Mohr's character interpretation and the formula I love best. In Chandler's Simple Art of Murder he lays out who Marlowe is to be, and he is more than the cold knight you expressed. It is not that he doesn't care for those around him, it is that he sees through to what they really want and that he sees it too often. He is like the man who works at the carnival ride. When you see him you are in an exagerated state of living, this is your first time on the roller coaster. But for Marlowe, he knows how the ride always ends, but he isn't too jaded to let you ride it out. Mohr simply had the cross to bear that this was the everday Marlowe. You cannot be the novel Marlowe everyday any more than you can have birthday cake everyday. He translated the best of Marlowe into a man that needed to eat, sleep, and fall in love just a little from time to time to keep going.

    Also I couldn't disagree more with your view on The Little Whishbone - if that is what you are refering to in your comment. Here finally we see what it would look like for Marlowe to fall in love, and reluctnatly he does until he is the opposite of his shell, he is so alive and carefree he even goes square dancing. But she has a past, and it catches up with her. Try as he may to use all he was as a detective to control and contain her past, she runs. It was not a mysterious illness she died of either, in the last line of the teleplay only do we find out he did not come to to her at last to propose or break up with her - but to say goodbye for she was killed by the blackmailer who was after her. Give it another listen, please.